Poetry Centre

  • Veterans’ poetry workshops

    About the workshop

    In 2019, Oxford Brookes Poetry Centre began a series of poetry workshops for US and UK military veterans. Drawing on the expertise of the Poetry Centre – a home for research into poetry and advocacy of its value in society – these workshops, designed and led by poets, veterans and academics, seek to explore how poetry can enable veterans to think through their experiences. In particular, they consider:

    • how poetry might be read and used by military veterans
    • how far 'war poetry' represents – or fails to represent – military service
    • how poetry can help to bridge the military/civilian divide
    • the role that poetry can play in post-war commemorative events.

    The anthology: 'My teeth don't chew on shrapnel'

    The anthology: 'My teeth don't chew on shrapnel'As a result of the workshops we have created an anthology, 'My teeth don't chew on shrapnel': an anthology of poetry by military veterans, that is free to download and share. It features poetry written by eight workshop participants and associates: Jo Young, Tom Laaser, Claire Hughes, Noel Harrower, John Thampi, Jamie Broady, Andrew Fassett, Stewart Hill, and Maggs Vibo. The anthology also includes an introduction by Niall Munro, an explanation of the workshop process by Susie Campbell, an essay about women veteran writers by Jane Potter, and reflections on her research into the perceptions of veterans in the UK and the US by Rita Phillips. Susie Campbell has also provided helpful writing prompts linked to the poems for those readers who are - or would like to be - writers.

    If you are part of a military organization, you might like to use some of the poems or reflections at some of your own events or commemorations, or you might simply want to read the poems on your own. Feel free to get in touch if you would like some support in your use of the anthology. Please note that a few of the poems and interviews contain material that some people might find upsetting.

    Download the anthology

    This anthology is free to download and free to share, and we encourage you to share it widely. You will require a pdf reader to view the anthology, such as Adobe Acrobat Reader (freely available here). There are three different versions of the anthology available: one with accompanying audio recordings of each piece in the anthology; one which includes audio recordings of the poems and interview excerpts only; and one which contains only the text. Please note that the larger files will take longer to download and you will have to download the file to your computer/device (not just view it in your web browser) for the audio to work. If you have any questions about the anthology or difficulties accessing it, do get in touch.

    Download the first enhanced version of the anthology (a pdf file that includes audio recordings of each piece in the anthology - 119 MB)

    Download the second enhanced version of the anthology (a pdf file that includes audio recordings of the poems only - 68.6 MB)

    Download the text-only version of the anthology (a pdf file that does not include audio recordings - 5.1 MB)

    Download the epub version of the anthology for screen-readers and e-book software (no audio - 2 MB)

    Feedback on the anthology

    We would very much welcome your thoughts about the poems and other writings in the anthology. Please send them to Niall Munro (niall.munro@brookes.ac.uk) or fill out a short feedback form here. Thank you!

    Personnel and research

    The workshop emerges from research by Dr Niall Munro (Senior Lecturer in American Literature and Director of Oxford Brookes Poetry Centre) and Dr Jane Potter (Reader, School of Arts), and develops a collaboration with Susie Campbell (PhD researcher at Oxford Brookes and poet), who devised and ran the creative writing sections of the workshops. Alex Donnelly (Founding Director of the Oxford University Disability Law and Policy Project and former Naval Intelligence Officer) and Dr Rita Phillips (Lecturer in Psychology, Robert Gordon University) were part of the team that devised and ran the workshops and Dr Hester Bradley is the Research Assistant for the project. The idea for the workshop derived from the University of Oxford/Oxford Brookes Mellon-Sawyer Seminar Series Post-War: Commemoration, Reconstruction, Reconciliation, which took place in 2017-18.

    The workshop in the media

    You can listen to Niall Munro discuss the workshops on BBC Radio Oxford here and hear him talk about the anthology (and listen to poems by Jo Young, Claire Hughes and John Thampi) on Radio Oxford here.

    From 3-7 August 2020, the workshop was the subject of a five-part mini-series on the British Forces Broadcasting Service (BFBS). Produced and presented by Jo Thoenes, the documentary, which aired on the 'Totally Connected' show, featured several of the veteran poets who took part in the workshop and feature in the anthology, alongside some of the workshops leaders. You can hear some of the programme and read more about the workshop and participants on the BFBS website in this story written by Laura Skitt.

    Interviews with participants

    As part of the workshops, Niall Munro interviewed the participants about their military experiences and their writing. Excerpts from some of these interviews appear in the anthology, but the full interviews can be heard here and transcripts of the interviews, created by Dr Hester Bradley, are also available below. Please be aware that some of the interviews contain material that listeners may find upsetting.

    Eugene Ratz

    Eugene Ratz served in the US military from 2008-2014. He undertook two tours of duty in Afghanistan with the 82nd and 173rd Airborne Infantry. He studied literature and religion at Rutgers University and attends the NYU Veterans Writing Workshop.

    Access the interview transcript here.

    With poetry you don’t have to rest on this sort of negative, traumatic place - you could bring in what happened before and after with that, and give space for the trauma without repressing it and also all the love and positive aspects of the experiences that happened around the same time.

    The stories we’re telling each other these days - meaning these last two days here [in Oxford] - are the types of stories that we need to be writing.

    John Thampi

    John Thampi was a Captain in the Military Police Corps who deployed twice to Iraq and once to Afghanistan. He left the military in 2012. He has been a member of the NYU Veterans Writing Workshop and his writing has appeared in 9 Lines ('The Song of the Forest' and 'Better'), The Rialtoand Newtown Literary.

    Access the interview transcript here.

    Most people you deal with are civilians and aren't familiar with the military and don't have a background in the military so it’s hard for them to relate. So you either have to play the victim or the hero - truthfully, you do - I’d far better prefer to be the hero, so I do things subtly like listing my award. They don't know the difference between whether it's a heroic award or if it's just for service but I list it, and maybe I’m complicit in this whole process as well, but if you don’t in some ways define yourself, unless you’re willing to fit the mould initially you're never able to break out of it.

    Initially when I wrote I wrote still as something that’s cathartic, something that I can really put down into words what I was going through and what I went through, but now that I realize - even at my workplace - I think I'm speaking for, I hate to say ‘we’, but I am speaking for the ‘we’, we as the legion or we as a people. So I think I am in some ways giving a voice to people who  wouldn't otherwise ever put pen to paper.

    J. Robin Whitely

    J. Robin Whitely served in the United States Marine Corps from 2005-2008 and first deployed to Iraq in 2006. He attended Southern Oregon University and then Seattle University and has been a workshop facilitator at the NYU Veterans Writing Workshop.

    Access the interview transcript here.

    I think [writing] must be cathartic but at the same time there is a reason why I still haven’t really written about the war. I wrote about the war when I first got out [of the military] for a little while and then I pretty much abruptly stopped.

    One of the things I go back and forth with is: as a veteran am I responsible? Is it my duty to write veterans’ poetry, veterans’ fiction, veterans’ work? Does the duty continue? I signed up, I raised my hand, I signed the contract, right? I am a veteran for life but I don’t want being a veteran to necessarily define me all the time.

    Jo Young

    Jo Young joined the British Army directly after leaving university. She trained at Royal Military Academy Sandhurst and served in Afghanistan as an adjutant before being promoted to the rank of Major. After leaving the Army in 2015, she joined the Army Reserve. She is in the final stages of a PhD at the University of Glasgow and has published a pamphlet of poetry based on her military experiences called Firing Pins  (2019), which was the joint winner of the 2017 Ink Sweat & Tears/Café Writers Pamphlet Commission Competition.

    Two interviews with Jo follow: the first is a general interview about her experience of being in the Army and the second focusses more on her writing and gender in the military environment. Access the first interview transcript here and the second interview transcript here.

    I’ve had people come up to me [after reading my poetry] and say: 'I didn’t know you could be a mum in the army' and it’s been twenty-five years since that rule was changed. It’s quite important to me [...] that the small army we have represents our society and is understood by our society because this army belongs to society.

    I don’t want to be an ambassador for the British Army - I’m very proud of the British Army, I would happily talk to people about why it’s a good career or the joyfulness of being a soldier but I certainly don’t want to be an ambassador or a bitter critic because I don’t feel like that either. [...] And I’ve tried to take out any hyperbole or anything overt [in my writing], so there’s no ranting or the pity of war stuff. This has been a very interesting job that has been very fulfilling and at times very boring, at times stressful and on very few occasions for me a bit frightening, but it is what it is. [...] But specifically for women, we have boyfriends or girlfriends and we diet and we fall out with each other and we forget to ring our mums on a Sunday and it’s [important to show how this is] part of womanhood [more generally] as well as part of the soldiering fraternity. And that was important for me - reclaiming my place in a wider sisterhood.

    Andrew Fassett

    Andrew Fassett was an officer in the U.S. Marine Corps for nearly seven years. He served first in Okinawa, Japan and deployed as a platoon commander to Helmand Province, Afghanistan with the 9th Engineer Support Battalion. He went on to serve as an instructor at The Basic School, teaching the next generation of Marine Corps Officers. He left active duty in 2016 and moved to Boston, Massachusetts. He has recently joined the Massachusetts Army National Guard as a chaplain.

    Access the interview transcript here.

    For me [poetry] is a way of expressing an experience or a feeling that is more than just a narrative. I’m particularly interested in not just expressing things for myself in an exploratory way but to connect with other people whether it be around an idea or an experience [...]. Anyone can make a poem so in that sense there is a collective experience.

    As I become a Reserve chaplain I would love to not wait until people are veterans to write - if people are going through an experience maybe providing [them] with workshops in that capacity I think would definitely be within the role and I think it could help people process their experiences better closer to the point of impact. If [you can] discover writing as part of a healing process wouldn’t it be better to have the tools more immediately present for those for whom particularly [writing] serves as a restorative outlet?

    Tom Laaser

    Tom Laaser enlisted in the U.S. Army in 2011 as a Field Artillery Cannoneer and was initially based at Fort Drum, New York with the 10th Mountain Division. He deployed with 4th Battalion 25th Field Artillery Regiment in 2013-14 to Camp Clark, Khost Province in Afghanistan on the Pakistan border. Whilst there he trained as a Dari interpreter, shot artillery, guarded an Afghan base, and trained Afghan soldiers as they transitioned into leading the war. After he returned home he suffered from PTSD and after a year and a half of treatment, he was medically retired in 2016. Tom runs a veteran writers workshop in Salem, MA and facilitates veterans’ writing events in the local area such as a Veteran Playwriting Festival.

    Access the interview transcript here.

    When I was applying to the university [Salem State University, Massachusetts], I met somebody who said there is three types of veterans you will meet: those that are all about being a veteran and it’s all they’ve got in terms of identity; those who want nothing to do with veterans - they won’t go to the VA [U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs], they won’t get any of the benefits that are deserving of them, they won’t even tell you about their military service; and the third one - and he said it’s the hardest, but it’s the most healthy - is those that have integrated their past experiences with the creation of what they are becoming.

    I think the writing community you find has its quirks, it has its own culture, its own lingo, and just like the military with different branches - you have your poets as you have your marines, your army as you have your fiction writers.

    Stewart Hill

    Stewart Hill joined the British Army when he was 23. He completed officer training at Sandhurst and then joined the infantry as part of the Royal Regiment of Wales, his local regiment. He had served for sixteen years when he suffered a brain injury after an IED exploded near him whilst he was on duty in Afghanistan in 2009. He was medically discharged from the Army in 2012. Since then, Stewart has used a number of different forms of art to explore his life and experiences, such as painting, poetry, the theatre and music. He is an award-winning painter and details of his work can be found on his website.

    Access the interview transcript here.

    I have found poetry [to be] a really interesting self-analysis tool to express how I am, how I was feeling, why I was angry. That’s what I love - that aspect of poetry - that if the challenge is: ‘OK, you’re going to write a poem about yourself which could be on display forever. How do you want people to see you? How do you want to [be] described?' So you’ve got to search for words that actually are really important to you and find out their meanings and the subtleties in [them].

    A few years ago I was asked to give a short talk in support of a charity fundraising event about my Army career, about my injury, the impact it had on me and how this particualr charity helped me. They said: “can you give a speech on that? However, it’s got to be done in four minutes.” I thought - 'OK, how can I explain, twenty, thirty years of my life in four minutes?' And with that challenge, what that made me do was think: 'actually, I’ve written some poems about my life since my injury.' So I amalgamated and put together bits and created this four-minute poem that summarised [it all] and it is an incredibly strong four-minute speech. [...] And this is what I love about particular poems: that [they] can summarise life events, life-changing events or monumental things that are happening, in, let’s say, ten lines. [...] The more you reduce it down, the more powerful it becomes.

    Claire Hughes

    After leaving school, Claire Hughes joined the Royal Army Medical Corps as an ODP (Operating Department Practitioner). She was posted to Portsmouth, working in a civilian hospital before transferring to a field hospital. She spent five years in the Army before being medically discharged. Claire completed an MA in Creative Writing at Lancaster University in 2019.

    Access the interview transcript here.

    My sergeant and my warrant officer didn’t like women being in the Army; they were very much: 'it’s a man’s world and only men should be doing it.' There were a lot of comments like: 'you run like a girl, you do this like a girl', and wanting you to be more masculine. If you showed any sort of femininity it was a weakness.

    So I finally got to the mental health team and I just kept going: 'I’m fine, there’s nothing wrong with me, just send me back to work, it’s fine' - so they were like: 'you need to write about it. If you’re not going to talk to us will you write it down?' So I did. And I was like: 'right, well I’m going to write poetically and then you won’t understand what I’m saying.'

    You can hide behind [poetry] - you can write what you want to say but people will interpret it in different ways and people will look at it and relate it to their own experience. So you can stand back and have a bit of a guard with poetry I think in a way that you don’t get with prose.

    Maggs Vibo

    Maggs Vibo served as a sergeant at Tallil Air Base in Iraq while attached to XVIII Airborne Corps in 2003. She earned her MA in Liberal Studies in 2011. In the past, she created educational programs for online learning environments, museums, and as a Park Ranger for the National Park Service where she worked as a Civil War Battlefield Interpretive Guide. Her published poetry is archived at O-Dark-Thirty, 4.2 (Winter 2016); 4.3 (Spring 2016); and 5.3 Anthology (Spring 2017) available here.

    Access the interview transcript here.

    A lot of teasing goes on, a little bit of light hazing whatever, and so I really just got tired of hearing about my hair and it caused some inspiration for me as far as poetry [was concerned], but I got tired of it so I said: 'let’s shave this off'. So I talked to the cook; the cook shaved it off. And it became a powerful thing for me in a way - I just felt like I had got back some of the narrative there - I didn’t want other people to guide me a certain way.

    [A] lot of conversations [with people who criticize women in the military] that are always frustrating revolve around very feminine things that happen in the field and I always wonder: 'well, this is happening to astronauts, why aren’t you asking the female astronauts?' You deal with things, you take care of things, and I did exactly the same thing, and for me I feel like it made me stronger, so if you think it makes me weaker, let me challenge you on that and let’s have a conversation. So in this way writing has been able to open up this idea where I can talk to them and go: 'I don’t know if I see things the way you do.'

    I feel that the best interpreters for a battlefield are the people who have gone to war. [...] There are books that explain it but I would hope that because you have lived it and you have walked in those boots and you have shuffled your feet and you have fallen down because you’re so tired and stumbled and gone through that feeling of 'am I going to be infertile because they just gave me the shot? Is dealing with this mound of trash that’s burning, is that going to ruin my chance for having a family later on?' Those kind of worries that maybe necessarily someone who hasn’t gone through it - maybe they’re not going to be able to interpret it as well - whereas I look at someone who has been through, say, the Overland Campaign [during the American Civil War] and they’ve gone through the Wilderness and they’re talking about the smell of things and I’m very in tune with that. I go: 'I know a way to interpret this, I know what that feeling of dread or despair really is like', and I want to make sure that when someone is with me and I’m giving them a tour, they feel that and they walk away going: 'I learned something and I can take that with me and 155 years ago doesn’t seem that long ago.'

    Jamie Broady

    Jamie Broady joined the Army National Guard when she was 19. Her unit deployed to Germany in 1996/1997 in support of Operation Joint Endeavor, a NATO-led peacekeeping mission in Bosnia. She earned an MFA in writing (Nonfiction) in 2016 from Pacific University, and she serves part-time as the adjunct writing instructor for Pacific University’s MSW program in Eugene, Oregon. In collaboration with Portland based Returning Veterans Project, Jamie facilitates free writing workshops for veterans. She also works full-time as an advocate with one of Oregon’s nine federally-recognized Tribes in a circles of healing program for DVSA (domestic violence and sexual assault) survivors. She is currently finishing up writing a memoir & hybrid collection of poetry and lyric essay, and developing a program with the nonprofit, Our Forest, to help address veteran homelessness in Oregon. In her free time, she loves reading, nature hikes, trail runs, yoga, and spending time near the ocean.

    Access the interview transcript here.

    I deployed in 96/97 and it was probably 2010 when I went into the VA [Department of Veterans Affairs] with a friend of mine who asked me to come with her as a sort of moral support to talk to the MST (Military Sexual Trauma) counselor. [...] And so I went along with her and then that counselor turned to me and said: ‘well, what’s your story?’ And I was kind of taken aback by that and first responded with: ‘what do you mean? I didn’t go through anything like that.’ [...] And she just said: ‘well, I want to hear your story, what’s your story? You have a story too.’ And I think she knew then what I’ve learned since in working with many other women veterans through writing workshops and just talking with other women veterans over the years: that every woman has a story and that falls on a spectrum somewhere probably, but every woman I’ve talked to has a story of MST, experiencing MST in the military at some level.

    [Writing] helps to transpose that trauma and to transcend it and to find the complicated bits in it - it’s not all black and white. I had a sense of complicity even, in my own experiences, at least part of them, and to just parse that out and examine that a little bit, it helps to process it and bring it out from just holding it in my body, which can really exacerbate stress. [G]etting it out onto the page allows and encourages other people to do the same, I think.

    I know that when I first started using the VA system, which was right after I redeployed [...] I was pretty young - I was 21 - and I didn’t look like a veteran to people: I had long hair, I just looked like a girl, and I remember when I was waiting for an appointment at the VA and I was surrounded by these male veterans, a lot of them older too. [They asked:] ‘well, who are you waiting for?’ and ‘why are you here?’, ‘you’re too young to be a veteran!'